Pacific Islands: How to take advantage of your new relationship with China

Cobus van Staden
By Cobus van Staden
Senior China-Africa researcher, South African Institute of International Affairs

Cobus is the head of research and analysis at the China Africa Project (www.chinaafricaproject.com)

Posted on Monday, 30 May 2022 11:11

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi reaches out to shake hands with Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele during a ceremony in Beijing
Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi reaches out to shake hands with Solomon Islands Foreign Minister Jeremiah Manele during a ceremony to mark the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two nations at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China, September 21, 2019. Naohiko Hatta/Pool via REUTERS

As China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi kicks off his visit to seven Pacific Island States amid a collective freakout from Western powers, Africans may be feeling a sense of déjà vu. 

To be sure, some aspects of Wang’s approach differ from Africa’s experience with China. For example, a recently circulated draft communique and five-year joint action plan skip over China’s usual bilateral country-by-country approach in favour of a multilateral deal with ten Pacific states at once.

However, the terms of the proposed deal will be quite familiar to African leaders. Training of police and government officials, both on the ground and via scholarships, features prominently on both sides. So does internet provision, with the promise of enhanced e-government systems integrated into the new data networks. Cooperation on trade, Covid-19, disaster relief, cultural exchange, and tourism, check, check, check.

Also quite familiar is Chinese offers of maritime and seabed mapping, a parallel to their provision of geological surveys on the continent. These surveys prepare the ground for future extractive deals and trade agreements and play into both the promise of economic growth and the danger of ecological damage inherent to being an underdeveloped country offering raw resources to a global economy who can’t be bothered to locate you on a map. Africa knows that game. Same deal with fishing – in both regions.

The collective Western weeping and rending of garments at the incursion of another interventionist power into regions that have already seen much Western intervention is also strikingly similar. The potential of another Djibouti – a Chinese military base popping up in a poor underdeveloped region long assumed to exist for the use of Western militaries only – is lighting a fire under the Quad. Penny Wong had hardly been sworn in as Australia’s new Foreign Minister before she was packed off to Fiji to try and counter-message the Chinese.

The backstory to this sudden eagerness to hear from these countries is of course a case of backyard-ism. Both Australia, in the case of the Pacific Islands, and Europe in Africa’s case, have long taken their dominance in these regions for granted.

Australian leaders literally laughing at the existential danger of sea-level rise to these countries is just one example of this lack of respect.

For all Wong’s messages of ‘hearing’ these countries, we still need to see whether Canberra will actually pull back on its death-cult fixation on coal. Despite years of pleas from these countries for something – anything – on climate change, none of the Quad members have deigned to do so.

China isn’t much better on any of these counts – but that’s the point. It doesn’t have to be much better at anything – even a little better would already radically change these countries’ options. That’s a key parallel with Africa: China’s relationship with the continent didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was a direct response to Africa’s earlier relationships – all so lacklustre and ripe for disruption.

So, Pacific Island countries, here’s some advice from my home to yours. Drawing on Africa’s extensive experience with China, make sure that you:

  • Know what you want from China: Set a unified agenda for regional development, make sure all your members are aligned on it and then stick to the plan. China can offer good or bad solutions to your problems. Which of those you get is up to you.
  • Know who China is: Despite twenty years of intense engagement, capacity on China among African policymakers is still woefully inadequate. This means that the continent seldomly gets the best deal it can. Get to know China’s system and what it can and can’t offer.
  • Push back on Chinese deals: African countries like Cameroon have shown that it’s possible to promote transparency over the standard secrecy clauses in Chinese contracts. Chinese negotiators will come armed with lawyers from New York and London. Make sure you do the same.
  • Make the West sweat: China’s arrival is making Western countries really nervous. This opens a historically unique window of opportunity that won’t last forever. Now suddenly Washington and Canberra want to ‘partner’ with you on ICT, on climate, on whatever? Make them prove it. Make them pay.

Oh, also, don’t allow Chinese fishing trawlers to register under your flag. Take it from Ghana. 

Published in partnership with The China Africa Project

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